Telling Your Life Story

Some people think that only those who have climbed mountains, fought in foreign wars, or battled a disease should write their life stories. But nearly every life has a history worth telling, and that is especially true of Christians. We each have a story of how God’s special grace has affected our lives.

Perhaps you fear that friends or family might think you’re uppity—writing your own life story! But with the right tone—giving God the credit—that is unlikely.

If hymn writers had felt that way, many great hymns would not have been written. In the hymn “I Love to Tell the Story,” Catherine Hankey tells us, “‘tis pleasant to repeat what seems each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet . . . [F]or some have never heard the message of salvation from God’s own holy Word.”

William Cowper’s “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” tells us in stanza 3, “You fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessing on your head.” What was he writing about, if not what he had learned from living a Christian life?

Getting Started

If you think you won’t have enough to write about, try this: for one week, sit down for an hour a day and reflect on the crises or triumphs in your life that brought you to tears or to your knees. Then reflect on who helped you to your triumphs or whom God sent to lift you from your grief.

Where memory is vague, interview people who might recall details, review old pictures and letters, and read obituaries in newspapers of the time about which you are writing. If there is still a gap in what you know, admit uncertainty.

Remember that the stories that wrench your heart may lie dormant until pointed questions get asked. For example, my father was not one to tell stories of his first wife unless he was asked about her. We knew, of course, that she had died young, but only when his second wife—my mother—died 64 years later did we learn the details of his first wife’s death. At my mother’s funeral, my brother Art asked my dad a simple question: was losing Mom at all like losing your first wife? Here’s his story:

In 1918 many people had already died of the flu, and we thought the epidemic was over. Then on a Wednesday in February 1919, I got the flu and my wife cared for me. No one dared to come on our farmyard—I had no visitors, not even a doctor. Only one cousin dared to come on my yard to do my chores and then left hastily. On Friday morning my wife caught the flu—she died 18 hours later, midnight Saturday. I could not attend her funeral, and no one dared to visit me—such was the fear of the flu.

Organizing Your Story

There are many ways to organize your story. But first ask yourself this question: For whom am I writing—mainly family members, or a general audience? That can help you determine what and how many details to include.

For example, you might organize your story around schooling, describing your generation’s attitudes toward it or toward the curriculum. If writing mostly for family, when did schooling end for you and the boys and girls you knew?

On the “frontier,” in rural areas it was common for boys and girls to drop out of school after the fourth grade to work on the farm or to hire out to help pay bills. And in country schools the curriculum usually differed for boys and girls: boys got more math and geography; girls got more spelling and reading.

Was education important in your family? If your family circle was a key influence in your life, how did you feel when the circle was first broken? How (if at all) did sibling rivalries, deaths, or family disasters influence your education? Did you move from one state or province to another, or to another neighborhood, during your school years?

In some areas, once a woman married she was not allowed to teach anymore. Were women teachers common in your education?

Milestones—graduations, key jobs, or choice of career—may combine with family stories as a way of organizing your story. If there was a divorce, how did it change your life? What strongly-felt embarrassments influenced your life? For example, did you or a family member deal (or not deal) with addictions? Some find it tempting to omit embarrassing chapters in their lives. I suggest that you ask the advice of a trusted friend before doing so.

In the World War II era in the United States, family circles were commonly broken by a son being drafted into the military. (Though women entered the military, they were not drafted.) In some areas if a young man avoided the military, he and his family were harassed—their company was shunned, their barns and cars were painted yellow, and more. The pain for some of those families lasted for decades.

You might wish to tell your story by chronicling changing attitudes in changing times.

Were you a family of readers? What books did you read? Did any book impress you so much that you read it several times? Did your parents ban any books, TV shows, movies, or other entertainment in your teen years?

Was your family known to be “ahead of the times” or always a step “behind the times”? How did you feel about how others regarded your family? For example, my dad was not one to buy the newest labor-saving machinery, but that did not matter much to me or my siblings. No one complained, and years later we were glad to have had a part in farming methods most people today only learn about in books, if at all.

If your goal is to reveal how attitudes have changed in regard to marriage, raising children, schooling, or religious upbringing, you may wish to interview people outside your own family. What you already know may provide clues as to whom you want to question and what questions to ask.

Ninety years ago my mother’s family thought it would shame the family if she married a widower. Why is still a mystery to me.

Was your own upbringing quite different from that of children today? Was it typical of your generation or unique to your family? Would you recommend such an upbringing to young parents today? Why or why not?

How did your family respond to world events such as World War II, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and any subsequent wars or natural disasters? Surviving siblings may be able to inform you on this. Knowing such facts may explain how your family celebrates national holidays or even your vote in the last election.

Telling your life story is important for you, because it helps you see God’s hand in your life. It’s also important for those who come after you, because who you are is part of who they are.

Excerpts Story-Formed

We are story-formed people. Our lives are first shaped by narrative, not by information. We don’t learn how to live the Christian life by memorizing facts, rules, precepts, morals, imports, exports, governments, and drains. Instead, from our earliest moments we experience the stories of those who have gone before us: stories from the Old and New Testaments; stories from the history of the Church throughout the centuries; stories of our own families and local congregations; stories that are enacted each week in the drama we call worship and in the everyday conversations and practices of the home. . . . We begin to see our lives as part of a pattern within the larger story of redemption. We long to live a life worthy of that story.

—Sarah Arthur in “Distinguishing Dragons: The Importance of Story in Faith Formation,”from Shaped by God, Robert J. Keeley, ed.; Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2010

For Discussion:
  1. Did your parents or grandparents share their life stories with you? How have the events of their lives impacted yours?
  2. Do you think your life story is worth telling? Why or why not?
  3. Is it important to reveal crises, triumphs, or embarrassing chapters of your life? Explain.
  4. Give an example of how God’s special grace affected your life.
  5. What important facts or thoughts are most important to pass on to your family members?

About the Author

Mike Vanden Bosch taught literature and the writing of prose and poetry at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, for 30 years. His published works include Boy in the Wind, a book of poems; The History of Dordt College; and A Pocket of Civility: A History of Sioux Center.

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